• iOS App Reviews - Scanner Pro, City Guides by National Geographic

    This week, a sophisticated camera utility which turns photos into scanned documents, and a new travel guide with city-based photos and information from National Geographic.

    Scanner Pro

    When the technology is accessible, we really like to digitise things. Apps like iTunes made it possible to take an entire CD collection and play any of its tracks instantly, just as photo conversion and book-to-eBook services do. A scanner at home has long been able to do the same for old paperwork, loose sheets and handouts, but they occupy precious space in a study room or office. Enter the modern day cellphone camera, where sharp, focused photos can be taken anywhere. Scanner Pro uses brightness and contrast filters to get scanner-like images from any device that can run iOS 5 or later.

    Scanner Pro launches first with a quick tour of its most important features, but after that, the app opens with a grid of scanned documents and folders. New documents can be added by tapping on the camera or camera roll buttons at the bottom of that screen. Both options allow multiple photos to be taken or selected (the retake button on the camera display is particularly useful), and the camera roll also shows photos from your photo stream and albums, but there are some issues here: it takes a while to load up large photo albums, and there’s no menu-based navigation for albums. If you have a lot of photos, prepare to scroll.

    Next, Scanner Pro guesses where the page starts and ends in the photo, but if it’s wrong, a shaded box appears over the photo with draggable corners. There’s also a list of presets for sheet sizes (A4, letter, business card etc). After that, two sliders appear for brightness and contrast, and while the document filter will invariably be used the most, the app also includes a grayscale filter and the ability to retain the original photo. The app does a remarkable job of turning a regular photo into a scanned document. The brightness and contrast sliders are useful and worth trying, but as long as you’ve taken a decent photo to start with, it should take less than 30 seconds to get a crisp and easily readable ‘scanned’ document, even when using the default settings. You can tell a lot of work has gone into achieving excellent results without much tinkering.

    For multiple photos, the app can batch process by automatically selecting the right dimensions and filtering every photo in the same user-selected way. If the camera and page were placed in the same position for every photo in the batch, being able to select the dimensions, brightness and contrast on one photo and have that apply to all would be a better solution, but Scanner Pro is very good at finding the page in the photo.

    Finally, photos are added to the main display where we started, and here, there are many options to export photos. They can be sent to print, emailed, opened in another app such as iBooks, or sent to the photo library (though with library export, strangely, only individually). They can also be uploaded to Dropbox, Google Drive (including the option to use their photo-to-text conversion), Evernote or a webDAV server. Better still, there’s local WiFi access and iCloud sync for other devices with the same app. The share menu is also home to password protection for the selected document or folder, and app-wide protection is possible in the settings. Scanner Pro will even fax your documents to any number in the world using in-app purchases.

    There are excellent features like this scattered all over in the app, and combined with the extensive share options described above, it’s an incredibly useful utility. A dark grey interface, while not the prettiest in the world, makes it easy to find documents and only rarely does the app feel over-designed (one of the few exceptions being the ‘new document’ panel on the home display). Given the tight integration with multiple web services, solid batch processing abilities, and user control over the filters applied to photos, there’s obviously a lot of sense in using it over the built-in camera to send a document, but with the app’s speed and accuracy, Scanner Pro may even be worth considering over the hardware it names itself after.

    Designed for: iPhone, iPod touch, iPad, iPad mini (running iOS 5 or later)
    Version reviewed: 4.4
    Price: $7.49
    Developer: Readdle
    App Store

    City Guides by National Geographic

    Traveling is much easier with an iPhone. Between a good maps app, saved webpages in the reading list, a reminders utility and Passbook, there’s no better alternative for organising a trip abroad. Filling that trip presents a more difficult question: use a travel guide and follow the pre-determined schedule as selected by its writer, or use apps like Yelp and Urbanspoon which provide thousands of choices but without a tried-and-tested calendar to go with it. In City Guides by National Geographic, there’s a more compelling option: a selection of popular and interesting places to go, all mapped out and ready to add to an in-app itinerary.

    It starts with a free download and a choice of four cities which can be unlocked for $5 each (or about $15 for all four). I tested the app with New York’s guide. The content inside is instantly available, but navigating through it is somewhat confusing at first: instead of a home display, the travel guide is split into nine sections via a menu that pulls out from the bottom. It’s best to start with ‘what to do’, since that contains a list of all 89 landmarks included in the guide. The list can be displayed alphabetically, by popularity or distance (configurable to kilometres in the settings), and results can be refined by de-selecting tags such as performing arts or shopping.

    Each location has its own description page, with some background information, contact details, one photo and distance away from your current location. There’s also a ‘secret’ and ‘did you know’ card for each, along with the ability to put that information in a list of favourites, accessed by the pull-out menu. A custom-designed map puts the landmarks in their place both on the list and description page, and bringing that map out to full screen makes it possible to tap on a landmark, beautifully displayed as a circle of options on top of its pin. Curiously, the largest circle links to that location’s ‘secret’, where it would make more sense for it to link to the description page, but nonetheless, it’s a nice way to browse around the city and get to know your way.

    Also in the pull-out menu, the photo panel which contains both location shots from the aforementioned description pages, and a nice set of shooting tips from National Geographic photographers (this includes advice on skyline shots and taking photos at Times Square and MoMA). There’s a food and drink guide written under city-specific categories, for a total of around 40 locations with linked contact details and maps. Everything is well-written and the photos that are included are truly stunning, but it would be nice to see photos for more of the listed restaurants/cafés, and as far as I could tell, they currently only display in portrait.

    All of these locations can be added to the app’s built-in itinerary. Creating an itinerary is just like creating a folder, where each landmark worth visiting can go inside by tapping on the top right corner of its description page. I found it more useful when I created an itinerary for each day (i.e. “Monday” has its own folder with activities inside). It’s a great addition to the app, and takes City Guides beyond a mere list of places worth seeing. At times, I wished the app would allow me to designate times to each location and warn me if the distance between them was too long to get there in time, but perhaps this would add unnecessary complexity to an app that already has an unconventional interface.

    The ‘essentials’ section, which is the last of the nine in the pull-out menu, is arguably the app’s best feature. Inside, there’s in-depth travel information including directions to the airports, contact information for tourists, street smarts (“at night, [outer boroughs] can get uncomfortably desolate”) and other downloads, such as the 9/11 memorial app. Then there’s the beautifully formatted statistics and conversions section, with some very intuitive controls (tap where $1 = x dollars to change the amount) and plenty of details on the city’s population and area. It’s also below here that the city’s local time and similarly beautiful weather forecast is displayed, with a left-right slider to discover what the weather is at any time over the following week.

    It took time to get used to the menu navigation system and I often wanted more landmarks and photos to be included in the app, but this second complaint may speak to the incredible quality of the City Guides app. Concise, accurate information on some of the most exciting areas of New York along with photography that –*when it’s there – really does capture the essence of the city it’s showing. It’s the global television network, magazine and website that is National Geographic that makes an app like this better than most of its kind. At $5 per guide, it sits on the fence between free community-based travel sites and more expensive published guide books, just as the app itself does too.

    Designed for: iPhone, iPod touch (running iOS 5 or later)
    Version reviewed: 1.0.2
    Price: Free (with in-app purchases, each guide costs $5.49)
    Developer: National Geographic Society
    App Store

    Rémy Numa is a student living in Sydney who totally started some Tumblr blogs a few years ago, so where's his share of the $1.1 billion?
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